Afghanistan: Negotiating while withdrawing is poor strategy
(The views expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not represent those of Reuters)
In the wake of a U.S. Army staff sergeantâ€™s murdering 16 Afghan civilians (mostly women and children), U.S. officials are contemplating the pace and scope of the U.S. troop drawdown from the country. At the same time, they are seeking a negotiated settlement with the Taliban leadership. U.S. and NATO Commander in Afghanistan General John Allen said yesterday that he did not foresee an accelerated drawdown of U.S. troops because of the shooting incident, but it is almost inevitable that this terrible tragedy will lead Americans to question the viability of the U.S. mission there.
The first goal of the U.S. Administration should be to demonstrate that it values Afghan lives and will pursue swift justice against the perpetrator of the heinous murders. This will help calm the situation and reassure Afghans the incident is an extreme aberration that will not reoccur.
The U.S. must not base its Afghan strategy around this one terrible incident. As tempting as it may be to view the current troubles in Afghanistan as an excuse to cut and run, U.S. leaders must recognise that such a decision would be irresponsible and lead to greater dangers for the U.S. and the Afghans. Instead, the U.S. and Afghan authorities must double down on their efforts to improve the partnership and show unity of purpose.
It is no secret that there are differences between the U.S. political and military leadership over the pace and scope of withdrawals. It is likely that President Obamaâ€™s political advisers will use the recent shooting rampage and the Koran burnings to bolster their calls for speeding up the drawdown of U.S. troops. But U.S. military commanders on the ground reportedly would like to keep most of the 68,000 troops that will be in place as of September 2012 until military gains are consolidated. Racing for the exits before the mission is accomplished will only create more chaos in the country that will redound to the insurgentsâ€™ benefit.
While U.S. policymakers are reeling from events in Afghanistan over the last month, the Taliban probably cannot believe their stroke of luck. Making concessions to the Taliban at this juncture would only embolden them and give average Afghans the impression that the Talibanâ€™s return to power is all but inevitable. There are alternatives to negotiating with the Taliban that the U.S. can pursue, which would better ensure that Afghanistan does not return to serving as an international terrorist safe haven.
At this stage of the conflict, the Administrationâ€™s time and energy would be better spent on supporting anti-Taliban elements and concluding a Strategic Partnership Agreement with the Karzai administration that ensures the U.S. will be able to maintain a robust military presence post-2014 to conduct training and counterterrorism missions. This is a far more promising strategy than engaging in long-shot negotiations with the Taliban, which will likely succeed only in giving increased political legitimacy to them and their extremist ideology.